Posted by: Jeff Langevin | September 24, 2009

Painting With Light

Many people are familiar with Painting With Light from seeing or creating photos by standing in front of the camera at night and writing words or making shapes with a flashlight.  Alternatively, they physically move the camera around while pointed at a light source or sources.  These techniques can be a lot of fun.  However, we’ll be focusing on painting landscapes – or in our case, more like intimate landscapes since we’ll be in the city and have limited space with folks around us.

Things you’ll need

  • Camera with manual exposure controls allowing for photos of 8-30 seconds (or longer on Bulb setting with a cable release).
  • Cable Release (for use on Bulb setting – not required)
  • Tripod
  • Light source(s) – flashlights/torches, headlamps, flashgun/strobe
  • Preferably dark clothing so you can move in and out of your scene without showing in the final image

Taking the Photo

  1. First find a location with some ambient light.  Since we’ll be in the city, we won’t be attempting to illuminate objects/areas in the complete dark.
  2. Next, set your camera on a tripod, compose your shot and then manually focus your lens on your scene.  (Or you can illuminate an area with your flashlight and use auto-focus, but you’ll then need to turn off auto-focus so your camera doesn’t re-focus.)
  3. Set an exposure of between 8 and 30 seconds with an aperture of f8 at ISO 100.  (There are no absolutes with painting with light.  There is a fair amount of trial and error.  So you may find you need more or less time or a larger or smaller aperture for your exposure.  But these are a good starting point.)
  4. Start your exposure either by using a cable release or using the self-timer.
  5. Now, keeping the light source between yourself and the camera lens, being careful never to shine the light at the lens, “paint” the areas of your subject you would like illuminated in your final image.

Things to Consider

  • I recommend pairing up with someone or going with a group, but you can certainly work alone if you prefer.  That way someone can stay with the camera and also manually work the cable release for longer exposures if you don’t have a programmable cable release.
  • One suggestion is to find an area with mixed lighting – a background that has some illumination but with a foreground object or objects that are dark and attempt to paint those objects.  And example would be a dark alley looking out into a street illuminated by street lamps.
  • Don’t keep your light source on the entire time.  Press the on button and use long broad strokes across your subject as if you were painting with a brush.  At the end of the stroke, release the on button.  This will help reduce bright spots caused by overlap and pauses at the end of a stroke giving a smoother look.
  • If you’re composition includes stars in the sky, make sure your exposure is either less than 30 seconds or considerably longer.  With the Earth’s rotation, you will see the stars just start to elongate into star trails by the time you get somewhere around 30 seconds.  So either keep it shorter, or go longer and consciously incorporate the star trails into your photo.  Otherwise, you run the risk of having un-sharp stars that look like the camera moved during the exposure.
  • Set your camera’s white balance to “Daylight” or the sun icon.  Why?  Daylight white balance will retain the color of night time lights the same as your eye sees them.  For instance, if you have a red and blue neon sign, the sign will appear red and blue with daylight white balance.  Any other white balance will render the colors differently.  Also, play with it.  Purposely try the same shot with a daylight white balance setting and then try it again on the tungsten or fluorescent setting and see what you get.
  • Because we’re doing long exposures, if your camera has Automatic Long Exposure Noise Reduction, turn it on.  This should be buried somewhere in your camera’s menu system.  For Canon users it will be under the Custom Functions menu.
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